Dear Scotland: An open letter from your Canadian cousins

An open letter from the Editors of the Globe and Mail Newspaper


Dear Scotland,

You probably don’t know this, but you made us. The first European to cross the continent and reach our Pacific coast was Alexander Mackenzie – a Scot. Our first prime minister and chief Father of Confederation, Sir John A. Macdonald? Scottish. So too our second PM. Our country’s national dream, a railroad from sea to sea, was realized in 1885 when Sir Donald Smith, head of the Canadian Pacific Railway, drove The Last Spike at Craigellachie – a place named after a village in his homeland. The man who did the most to create Canada’s system of universal public health care, and chosen as “The Greatest Canadian” in a national survey of CBC viewers, was Tommy Douglas. He was born in Falkirk. The thistle and the red lion rampant on our national coat of arms identify you as one of our four founding nations; half of our provincial flags contain a Saint Andrew’s cross; and one of our provinces – Nova Scotia – is named after you. There are said to be more pipers and pipe bands in Canada than in Scotland. And nearly five million Canadians identify their ethnic origin as entirely or partly Scottish, which means we have almost as many Scottish-Canadians as you have people.

You made us – and as a gesture of thanks, we’d like to offer some advice on how to avoid unmaking yourself. This bit of history you are living right now? This referendum thing? We’ve already been through that. We may be a young nation but we have far more experience than you on this issue. We nearly tore our country apart. Twice.

The independence side in your referendum campaign is to be commended for a few things. There’s no ethnic nationalism at the heart of the Yes movement, and that is no small accomplishment. And the question to be asked on the 18th of September – “Should Scotland be an independent country? – sounds remarkably clear and simple. The Quebec independence movement never dared ask anything so straightforward, because outright independence has never been favoured by anything close to a majority of the Quebec population.

Compare your question with the one asked of Quebeckers in 1980: “The Government of Quebec has made public its proposal to negotiate a new agreement with the rest of Canada, based on the equality of nations; this agreement would enable Quebec to acquire the exclusive power to make its laws, levy its taxes and establish relations abroad – in other words, sovereignty – and at the same time to maintain with Canada an economic association including a common currency; any change in political status resulting from these negotiations will only be implemented with popular approval through another referendum; on these terms, do you give the Government of Quebec the mandate to negotiate the proposed agreement between Quebec and Canada?”

The Scottish question is shorter and simpler. But is it really clearer? It has not escaped the notice of us, your cousins from across the seas, that much of the case made by the Scottish Yes campaign is neatly described by our fuzzy 1980 question. “Sovereignty” but maintaining “an economic association”? Check. A new country, but also a plan to “negotiate a new agreement” with the old nation? Check. A Yes vote portrayed as promising co-operation rather than a severing of ties? Check. And the idea that you can leave but keep the currency? Sorry, we’ve heard this song before.

The Yes campaign in Scotland, as reasonable as it imagines itself, seems to believe in the unreasonable proposition that you can improve your marriage by getting a divorce. It doesn’t work that way. The Yes campaign also promises that post-divorce negotiations will take place in an atmosphere of complete calm and rationality – and that rump Britain will give it what it wants. But that glosses over the fact that the other side has demands, too. Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond said recently that, if Britain didn’t let an independent Scotland continue to use the pound, Scotland might refuse to assume its share of the national debt.

Mr. Salmond has the greatest interest in maintaining the fiction that normalcy will reign and reason will rule in the event of a Yes victory – and yet the mere mention of a hypothetical negotiation has even him testily making threats. How well do you think it will go if things move beyond the hypothetical? Having looked over the edge of the precipice that you are marching up to, and having dipped our toe into the volcano more than once, we can tell you: It will not go well at all.

There is an alternative to independence: federalism. It’s something we’ve been practising and perfecting for a century and a half. You’ve been at it for a decade and a half. Give it time. We’re not sure if the “Devo Max” plans to devolve nearly complete responsibility for taxation to the Scottish Parliament, plans being floated by the British government in the final days of a referendum, are necessarily the way to go. But some devolution of taxing authority can take place. The Scottish Parliament has little power to raise its own revenues – whereas Canadian provinces have a full range of taxation and spending powers. That’s federalism. That’s how strong subnational and national governments can coexist.

Once upon a time in Quebec, the independence option was the choice of the young, as it is in Scotland. That time has passed; most young Quebeckers today do not imagine that their very real economic and social challenges will be addressed by drawing a new border. But it took us a half-century to get to this point. The same can happen for you, too.

So, dear cousins from beyond the seas, here is our advice and our plea: Stay in the United Kingdom. Let time pass and passions subside. Make changes happen, but within the U.K. And meet us back here in, say, 2040. You can take the U.K. apart then, if you still want to. We think you will not. And we know this: If you take it apart now, you can never, ever put it back together again.



  1. An Open Letter to the People of Scotland from an Irish Ex-Pat (and E.U. Citizen) on the Subject of the Vote for Independence

    Nationalism is a beast, the cause of all kinds of needless conflicts in modern history. Sticking my neck out into this argument, especially as a foreigner, is risking getting my head bitten off. I don’t have a vote in the coming referendum, but I have something at stake. The thing is, I would like to move to your country. But wait, I’ll add the emphasis… I’d like to move to YOUR country!

    I am an Irishman, born in Dublin. I left when I was seventeen and have lived in various parts of the U.S. and U.K. since. I am forty now and I currently live in Hamburg, Germany. My partner is Scottish, born in Edinburgh, and we have a daughter, born in Germany. Since our daughter’s birth, we have discussed moving to Scotland. We would like our daughter to be educated there. My partner would like to be closer to her family. I have as many relatives in Glasgow and Fife as I have left in Ireland, a great gaggle of fine cousins. I’d like to see myself as a citizen of the world, but being pragmatic can recognize the realities of our time – so I’m quite happy with being a European Citizen. I have the freedom to work in Dublin, London or Frankfurt, as I often do.

    So what has stopped us from simply packing up and moving back to Scotland if we want to? Well, it’s all this uncertainty about its future. Will Scotland be part of the E.U.? Will it have a currency or will the economy just crumble if it goes it alone? Will the region settle into a quiet despair at a continuation of its backwater status if it stays in the U.K.? We will not be making a decision until we know the outcome. The referendum has been a frequent subject of discussion between us over the dinner table and among our ex-pat friends. We are well-informed, we watch the debates and follow the news carefully.

    What I would like to do in this letter is to highlight the outside perspective on the independence vote. To offer some of the important points for us, what we see and how it makes us think:

    Firstly, the minor points: To be blunt about it, the main weight of debate in Scotland appears petty to us on the outside. Worries about retirement funds seem insubstantial – who can tell what will happen to them whichever way the the coin falls? Likewise with gas and oil resources – how do we know how much is left or how much we will rely on these in the future? And the alarmist talk that everything will be more expensive in an independent Scotland? Really, anything to do with the economy, currency, interest rates, is voodoo and should be dismissed from the debate. That’s a beast of it’s own. What would seem like one logical prediction is that an independent Scotland would attract foreign investment, since it is a highly productive region with a highly educated workforce. Economics abhors a vacuum, Scotland should know this and have nothing to fear.

    The Personalities: Too much of the debate is also hinged on the personalities of the leading spokespersons. Tossing away the opportunity for independence because of personal prejudice towards Salmond is pitiful thinking. Likewise Darling and what he represents. How the debate falls to these two dubious characters is happenstance, and shouldn’t influence the issues themselves. Talking heads, poor charisma, they can be dispensed with when all this is over. A Yes vote is not a vote for Salmond, it’s not like he’s going to start a potato-head dictatorship on approval of independence. A No vote only furthers Darling’s career and those of his camp.

    “Balanced Coverage”: Hardly any statement can be made openly in support of independence in the British media without a counter-statement in support of the Union, but it’s not always the other way around. The BBC has proven to be biased in support of the Union and several key newspapers are suspiciously towing the same line. This has stifled the debate and apparently confused voters greatly as to the purpose or benefits of independence. The result of this has been that the Scottish people are left in fear of the unknown, without realizing that the future is always unknown and they must write it.

    Fearmongering and bad attitudes: London politicians, and the Better Together campaign, have consistently used fear tactics to keep Scots in line. The level of their desperation is evident in their threats to “cut-off” Scotland if it leaves the Union – like jealous parents, “if you cross that threshold, you can never come back!” England needs Scotland a lot more than the other way around. Cutting Scotland out of the currency would do a lot more damage to the sterling pound than to the Scots – it’s an empty threat, and the Scots should be able to dictate their own economic terms. But what the Better Together campaign reveals most of all is the disparaging attitude of English politicians towards the Scots. Scotland is treated, with some haughty degree, like a 2nd class region, and its inhabitants like children. How the Scots can tolerate these slights, I find baffling! I am certain my sentiment has a lot to do with my Irish pride…

    Historical Comparisons: Ireland had a bloody and protracted separation from the U.K. Every drop of blood spilled added to the resentment and perpetuated the conflict, enough that some Irish commentators were forced to question whether independence was really worth it. This is the ugly aspect of Nationalism. The Irish Free State was made to suffer for its complete devolution, and underwent devastating economic sanctions in the 1930’s. The country was a shambles, and it took decades to pick itself back up (though fortunately avoiding a Second World War which it would have been undoubtedly pulled into were it still part of the U.K.). Ireland had its own success story, eventually, in the 1990’s and early 2000’s, the so-called “Celtic-Tiger”, a period of such sickening extravagance and corruption that reigned until it all went horribly wrong and smashed up against the wall in a spectacular wreck. So, was it all worth it? Hell, yes! We may have mucked it all up tremendously, but at least we mucked it all up our way! This probably sounds irresponsible – it isn’t. I am proud to be Irish and share the responsibility of our disasters as much as our successes. (I should add, I doubt Scotland would make the same mistakes, being a much more rooted and sensible lot). National pride isn’t evil until it makes you kill or terrorise another person, or support such actions. If I were alive in 1916 and asked to take up arms against the British, would I? Most likely not, it’s against my philosophy to kill (though my ancestors did). But imagine if the Irish could have voted for independence and no blood had to be shed! Wow! What difference that would have made! The wars, the train-wreck economy, the shambles, and the many successes of Scotland’s neighbour, Ireland, all alludes to the most important facet of the Scottish referendum:

    Self-determination: To make your own destiny, choose your own direction, and representation. One of the greatest myths propagated in the modern age is that Britain is a democracy. Not quite. There is no single constitution, the House of Lords is not elected by the people, and, of course, there is a monarchy. Though the U.K. parliament is one of the oldest continuous democracies in the world, it is only superficially so. Added with the arrogance of the English establishment towards Scotland and its people, why would you trust these people to decide your future? Large swathes of Scotland are effectively colonial outposts, whether royal estates or M.O.D. lands. Scottish people do not get to choose what goes there (ie. nuclear weapons) or how these lands are used. This is your back yard… areas of exceptional beauty, and resources, cut off from you. Why wouldn’t you want them back? And there’s the touchy subject of foreign wars – haven’t Scottish regiments historically taken an unfair share of the burden of warfare for English interests? Sure, there will always be wars to get muddled up in and private property to be excluded from, but as an independent nation you can determine how you are involved in such events and how your land is used. Your country on your terms.

    Involvement with the E.U.: There is much debate (and in the U.K., government-sponsored diatribe) about the E.U.’s effectiveness, but let’s get this clear, Scotland is already enveloped in a hellish foreign bureaucracy. There are nearly three times as many civil servants in London pulling strings of power than in Strasbourg and Brussels combined (about 95,000 in London for the UK government compared to about 35,000 for the entire E.U.). Membership in the E.U. does not affect sovereignty, it affects standards in governance, trade and education. Scotland already meets or exceeds most of these standards. Membership in the E.U. is directly beneficial to all citizens, in my opinion (freedom of movement being a main part). Whether Scotland is part of the E.U or not is up to the Scottish people, taking current difficulties with the Euro currency into consideration. One thing seems more certain, however, and that is that if Scotland stays in the U.K., it will most likely exit the E.U. in the next few years. E.U. politicians have mostly stayed silent on Scotland’s eligibility for the union, jittery themselves about other separatist cases, Veneto, Catalan, etc. Fast-track must be available for former members, logically. The currency is indeed in a state of flux and many policies seem unnecessary, but it would be possible for the Scots to peg their currency to the Euro unofficially if they wished, much like Croatia did, until accession, if it suited them. The main point here is that Scotland would be able to choose involvement for themselves if they are independent, and are at the mercy of cynical London euro-sceptics otherwise.

    Security, Safety, Sanity: Much of the debate involving Scotland’s security in a chaotic global theater I find ludicrous. Scotland can, does and historically has policed itself with little problem. It is a safe country tucked into the corner of the safest part of the world. The one real enemy nibbling at the edges of this is poverty. This situation is improving, but policies made in London may not help something that needs to be tackled locally. Look to your neighbours, again, Ireland, Norway, and see how they can exist without the need for large armies or indeed membership to NATO. Don’t be bullied into thinking that independence leaves you open to invasion or exploitation – this makes no sense in our modern age.

    Tradition: It is true that Scotland and England are in a deeply symbiotic relationship. Whether this relationship is disadvantageous or more beneficial to either country has come under scrutiny with the referendum debate. It is unfair to assess this too closely, there can never be a perfect balance with so many factors involved. But here I would like to again draw a comparison with Ireland. At the end of the 19th Century, there was a Gaelic Revival – a fresh surge of interest in the songs, mythologies and language of Ireland. This cultural movement reawakened the national identity and gave fuel to the political debate on Irish Home Rule. Paradoxically, those at the forefront of both the cultural and political revivals were themselves not native Irish, but “Anglo-Irish,” (Lady Gregory, Yeats, Douglas Hyde). Scotland had a Gaelic Renaissance of its own, too, in the same period, but it was homegrown, it did not find an international stage as the Irish revival did. Why is this? A lot of theories could come from here, whether to do with the sympathy for the Irish cause and the overwhelming numbers of its diaspora abroad. In my point of view, English investment into Scottish culture seems to only extend as far as patronage, and this might be where the difference lay. The Anglo-Irish community did much to integrate and ingratiate themselves into Irish society. They engaged with it. Can the same be said of the “Northern Britons” who kept their spiritual home in the Home Counties and treated indigenous culture with scorn? It’s a broad question that those involved would need to ask personally, but perhaps a factor in the bold allegiances which have come out in the independence debate.

    International Image: Don’t be fooled, most of the world wants to see Scotland spread its wings and go it alone as a nation. The support will come pouring in if you do. The olive branches are ready to be proffered, but most nations have held back until now, not wishing to interfere (or stir another beast of nationalism). An independent Scotland will have many, many new friends. A No vote, on the other hand, will only show a people who prefer to be ruled, to be subjugated, and this leads down the path of irrelevance and obscurity.

    Reinvention: Independence would reinvigorate Scotland like nothing else. People like me will be compelled to join in on the project of a new Scotland and contribute to its success. Tourism will boom as the curious flock to your shores to witness the new flourishing. The buzz might not last very long, but you will benefit from being one of the few states throughout history to have gained independence peacefully. It would be an awesome accomplishment. People will come to be part of it.

    I can understand how things lie in the balance. My relatives in Scotland appear to be overwhelmingly for the Yes vote. They have an Irish heritage and are perhaps more aware that independence is possible, though difficult, and does not involve a complete deterioration of society. My partner’s family, on the other hand, are for the No vote. They have close ties with England and Wales (and family in London), and have much invested. It is no surprise that the polls over the last few years have consistently shown the vote split so closely.

    But the upshot of it is, we are less likely to move to Scotland if it stays in the U.K. A No Vote would be a victory for a cynical view, it would be for a Scotland that is not willing to change… and the world is changing fast!

    So this is all terribly oversimplified, but what else can one achieve in under 2000 words (about the length I figure anyone would have the patience for)? So, I’m a foreigner with an opinion and a real concern for what comes next for Scotland. I encourage you all to go for it, (and not hate me for expressing myself on your issues). We, the people of the world, will be there to help. I will go there personally to help out in whatever way possible should you decide in favor of freedom. It will be fantastic!

    I wish the best for Scotland and its people. I hope for a great future for my cousins in Glasgow! I want to visit your beautiful country more often, maybe make a home there, and be a part of your great culture.

    Your Irish Cousin,

    Bernie Duffy

    • That’s naively trusting. You have assumed that the details of citizenship are bound to be okay and up to democratic standards instead of actually checking on it. We are going through a crisis of racism morally scarring our history.

      The nats are offering a theory of what they call “civic nationalism” which means only caring about the population already here, its claim to be non-ethnic is a device to betray the Scottish diaspora and they are doing that by having a racistly narrow restrictive plan for citizenship. Only folks with a British citizenship background as well as the right accident of either present residence or birth are getting automatic citizenship – they are making you jump through the hoops of every possible anti-outsider prejudice not even of just one. Against ECHR article 8 on family life, dividing families and preventing them from coming together to support each other in times of economic or medical need, they are not giving unrefusable right of citizenship to the Scottish exile-born offspring of our emigrants. Salmond himself would not say to me on the phone-in on Aug 29 that this citizenship category will be unrefusable. Jim Sillars, who told George Galloway his son might not be a citizen, openly wants to make it subject to filtering for desirable skills, told a Yes audience “We must not be afraid of this”, and some of the Radical Indy trotskyists agree with him. This means punishing further for their victimhood all victims of bad education systems or institutional child abuse who were caused by it to lose the chance to get high flying skills. They have also ratted on a former SNP pledge to give citizenship to anyone born in Scotland, they won’t give an answer on the case of someone born here after 1983 to parents who were only here on student permissions who cruelly can’t get British citizenship.

      Yet the No side, and the media constantly accused of a No bias, won’t do anything to warn people about this or focus the campaign on it, not even in this present crisis of possibly losing. That can only be from motives of sticking to the present British-wide mood of tabloid racism towards Europe and not wanting to do anything tying them to a pro-immigration position even if loss of Britain is the result instead.

      Consequently, straight after the Euro election I lodged petition 1448/2014 in the European parliament, which is not so naive as to depend on being formally upheld, all political systems are too corrupt for that,. instead it places my point in the ecord for anyone to refer to at any time regardless of whether it gets formally upheld or not. It tells the EU it will be a bad precedent against its purpose and breaking its whole constituted nature, if it recognises or deals with the new Scottish state as legitimately mandated to exist, or accepts the ref as fairly conducted, if the mass of voters were not aware that they were voting for this xenophobic citizenship plan. One phone-in to Salmond and 4 newspaper letters by me, and the Sunday Post twice putting small paragraphs on citizenship in an inside page, don’t make the mass of voters aware.

      The danger towards EU membership is far worse with yes than with No. Britain’s anti-EU movement is not threatening what the SNP is threatening, to take residency away from the EU citizens already here if we have any trouble with rejoining: You may find you can’t move here.

      Then there is the Wee Blue Book the nat street activists are now frantically handing out to the public. Read here its threat to deport to rUK 400 000 people deemed to the other types of British, some of whom might well in fact be Scottish by background considering their other plans above, again if we get any trouble over the EU or other points of world status. This is horrible racist nationalism and an exceptional crisis to have threats of mass deportation and population movement going round in our politics without any shocked reaction.

  2. Nothing but a blank cheque to negotiate what suits themselves is on the table from Yes either.
    Including several plans that take for granted outside parties’ cooperation with neither basis nor means of making it happen.

  3. Although you advocate Devomax you should be aware that Devomax was removed from the ballot paper by the Westminster government. It only re-emerged when YES took the lead in the opinion polls. Nothing is on the table, just a “timetable” for discussing what Westminster might offer to Scotland.

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